Jesus said he would be in ‘the heart of the earth’ (tomb) for three days and three nights (Matthew 12:40, NAS), but we know he was raised on the third day.
Was it Thursday?
Does this raise a question in our minds of when he was actually crucified? Was it on the Thursday or perhaps on the Wednesday so he actually was in the tomb for three days and three nights?
To know the answer is to take into account the way the Jews of the time counted the days. In Jewish counting, a part of a day was counted as a whole day.
So, while X days and X nights can mean what it means in English, in Jewish counting, part of a day can be counted as a whole day, for example, the day of a funeral, even if it’s late in the day, is counted as the first day of the seven days of mourning.
Another example would be circumcision which takes place on the eighth day, even though the first day, the baby was born only minutes before midnight, it’s still counted as the first day.
A further example is (1 Kings 20:29 NAS): ‘So they camped one over against the other seven days. And it came about that on the seventh day, the battle was joined.’
This would mean, in English, they only camped opposite each other for six days and started the battle on the seventh however, in Jewish counting, the partial days are counted as whole.
There are other examples of this throughout the Bible.
These examples show X days and X nights need not mean X 24-hour periods. So how should three days and three nights be understood in the Gospels? We should see what other passages say about the same event.
One website has made a helpful table of all the references.
Interchangeability of terms: (All Bible data on Resurrection)
Duration in grave
Until the third day
Mt 27:64 give orders for the grave to be made secure until the third
In three days
Mt 26:61 rebuild it in three days
Mt 27:40 rebuild it in three days
Mk 14:58 in three days I will build another made without hands.
Mk 15:29 rebuild it in three days
Jn 2:19–20 in three days I will raise it up
On the third day
Mt 16:21 raised up on the third day
Mt 17:23 raised on the third day
Mt 20:19 on the third day He will be raised up
Lk 9:22 be raised up on the third day
Acts 10:40 God raised Him up on the third day
1 Cor 15:4 raised on the third day
The third day
Lk 18:33 the third day He will rise again
Lk 24:7 the third day rise again
Lk 24:21 it is the third day since these things happened
Lk 24:46 rise again from the dead the third day
Three days later
Mk 9:31 rise three days later
Mk 10:34 and three days later He will rise again
After three days
Mt 27:63 After three days I am to rise again
Mk 8:31 after three days rise again
Three days and three nights
Jonah 1:17 in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights.
We have to not only allow Scripture to interpret Scripture but should allow for the understanding of the time period in which it was written.
Buried before the Sabbath
Then there is perhaps the most compelling argument about when Jesus was placed in the tomb. Joseph of Arimathea asked for his body so he could be buried before the Sabbath (Mark 15:42–45), in Jewish religion, Saturday is still the Sabbath.
So, on what day was Jesus crucified? The best explanation is Christ was buried before about 6pm Good Friday (Luke 23:54). Since the Jewish day started at sunset, the late afternoon of Good Friday was the first day; Friday sunset to Saturday sunset was the 2nd day; the 3rd day began on Saturday at sunset, and Jesus had risen from the dead by early Sunday morning.
John Skinner served as an infantry soldier in Vietnam then the Tasmanian Police before taking up the position of CEO of the Australian Rough Riders Association (professional rodeo based in Warwick Qld). Before retirement to his small farm, he was a photo-journalist for 25 years. He is married with 3 children and 7 grandchildren.